NASCAR Sprint Cup: The 6 Most Despised Champions in NASCAR History
The goal of racing, or any sport for that matter, is to win. But, what happens when an individual wins too much or in a manner that is unpleasant to fans and general viewers?
It can ruin a season. It can ruin a second season in a row.
Whatever the case may be, when drivers, players, etc. are successful to the point where they reach the pinnacle of their given profession, they inadvertently open themselves up to a wave of skepticism and pessimistic fan bases.
They may even turn their own fan bases against them. In one case, a driver turned the NASCAR organization proper against him.
All of the drivers listed here are champions; not all of them are given, or were given, the proper respect that they truly deserve/deserved during their successful seasons.
I write this as not a fan or hater, but merely from what I have seen, read, and heard.
As a caveat, I do not have the historical perspective to write knowledgeably about NASCAR from its inception into the early '70s. I am just not old enough and humbly admit it.
For older fans, I apologize in advance if you can recall a more despised champ beyond those mentioned on this list.
6. Matt Kenseth 2003
I do not know anyone who openly hates Matt Kenseth. At the same time, I know of few die-hard Kenseth fans.
His personality, most likely, dictates this reaction. He is a quiet man, not given to open hostility towards other drivers and very few of those hostilities are predicated towards him, save for the anomalies of Jeff Gordon's helmeted attack and Carl Edwards' fake punch in an after-race interview.
It should be noted, that neither of those instances were promulgated by Kenseth, in any way.
What commenced the "wrath" towards Kenseth was not really wrath at all. Simply, in 2003, he was just too good. By the time the season was to conclude at Homestead Miami, he had already wrapped up the championship.
Still, he ran this race and completed a paltry 28 laps and finished dead last. He could have emulated his fellow Wisconsinite Alan Kulwicki and done "Polish" victory laps all day and still have won.
I am not sure what NASCAR fans thought of it, as a whole, but the 2004 season saw the inculcation of the Chase format, designed specifically to deter the dominance and foregone conclusion that Kenseth had engineered in 2003.
Matt Kenseth was a victim of his own success and despised by NASCAR itself in the 2003 season.
5. Rusty Wallace 1989
Rusty Wallace would not be included in this list save for one unfortunate incident. It was truly the nadir of his career.
While a popular driver going into the Winston in 1989 (now known as the All-Star Race), Wallace won this race, but lost the war. The result almost seems like a pro-wrestling script, where a popular wrestler "turns heel" and becomes a scoundrel.
Wallace wrecked, purposefully, long-time "heel" and former champion Darrell Waltrip during the last lap and gained the victory. Though it did not count for any official points towards his championship, Wallace lost tons of popularity points because of his actions.
Waltrip quipped that he hoped that Wallace "choked" on the cash he made from this race.
NASCAR fans generally agreed and were less inclined to loathe Waltrip in the future.
4. Darrell Waltrip 1982
newly mointed NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip was not as universally respected in 1982 as he is today. Indeed, he was the man that fans loved to hate.
Time heals wounds, but Rusty Wallace, as mentioned in the previous slide, certainly soothed the fans' hostility towards DW in 1989.
Such was not the case in 1982.
"Jaws" had already built a cocky and brash reputation after winning his first title in 1981. He did not win over many fans by gaining the crown a year later for a second-time.
Actually, he had probably lost more support than he gained.
But, time heals most wounds. By 1989, thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Wallace, he gained the title of "Most Popular Driver." That accomplishment was repeated in 1990, coupled with garnering the title of "Driver of the Decade" for the '80s.
Today, he is a well-respected racing commentator. I wonder if he sends Rusty Wallace Christmas cards every year for the invaluable contribution which he made to DW's career?
3. Jimmie Johnson '09, '10, Possibly '11
This picture alone probably pisses off more than a few Republican NASCAR fans instantly.
It is not so much that Jimmie Johnson is shaking hands with a Democratic President, but look at that fake smile garnered by Kurt Busch (far right) in the background: this is probably the kind of smile Johnson has encountered since his fourth-straight Sprint Cup title.
I have a theory that, in any sport, three straight championships is the maximum allowable limit before the majority of fans in said sport turn against the victor.
The first time gets the competitor to the pinnacle. The second time proves it was no fluke. The third consecutive time leaves no doubt in the fans' mind that this entity (team or individual) is something truly special.
Anything beyond that, the fans grow restless. A thousand days is about all they can stand without growing envious, vehement and cantankerous.
Jimmie Johnson is two years removed from even that. If he could pull off a sixth-straight championship, it would be special, just like his fourth and fifth. Still, some hate will ensue.
The success, here, is now the core of the problem.
Jimmie can go ahead and surpass Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in career titles; that's fine. The animosity lies in the fact that he refuses to give up the Cup for even a year.
Come on, Jimmie!!! Breath some life back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
2. Jeff Gordon 2001
I did not picture the Rainbow Warrior because he needs no pictorial introduction. He was the literal face of NASCAR for longer than many fans would care to note. Notice the Pepsi in hand vice the Coca Cola.
They threw beer cans (full) at him, they threw beer bottles; it did not matter, as he pretty much kicked everyone's behind until the conclusion of 2001.
That was his fourth championship.
As the theory goes, fans were turning on him at this point, if a majority ever existed at this point in time. It was not consecutive, but it sure felt like it.
Today, he has revived himself with a new legion of fans that cheer his success in the 2011 Sprint Cup Chase. He even became a sexy favorite to repeat as a fifth-time champion.
That, more or less, went down the drain when his car literally blew up at Kansas in the fourth Chase race.
Ironically it was Jeff, who, upon personal recommendation to his boss, brought Jimmie Johnson into the Sprint Cup Series at Hendrick Motorsports. It was a good deal for him nonetheless, as he owns a stake in Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet.
I wonder, though, if he lies awake at night regretting that recommendation, from time to time.
1. Dale Eanrhardt 1994
Dale Earnhardt was a great driver. No one can deny that. He was as much hated as he was loved; if I may coin another nickname for him, I dub him "the Polarizer."
However, in death, as in life, he more than doubled the mold of the three-time winner theory.
1994 was his seventh and last championship. He tied "the King" Richard Petty. That probably caused some animosity and is perhaps a subtle reason why more fans turned to Jeff Gordon as a hero after the 1994 season.
He was known as "the Intimidator" and the "Man in Black." These are not truly positive nicknames.
They are synonymous with Darth Vader. The Force, however, did seem with him while he was with us.
Though Dale Sr. was not necessarily in touch with the Dark Side of the Force he, most certainly, "rattled a few cages" during his time in NASCAR.
Terry Labonte can serve witness.
RIP Dale. There is no other No. 3, Babe Ruth aside.